St Aloysius' Day Sermon by Fr James Hanvey SJ
I want to thank the Fathers of the Oratory at St Aloysius for inviting me to celebrate the patronal feast of the parish. It is also a joy to be back in this capacity. I first came to know the parish some 30 years ago now when I was in doctoral studies and occasionally supplied at the Sunday masses. I greatly admire the work and dedication of the Fathers and it has been a particular joy to come to know them as friends since my return to Oxford as Master of Campion Hall.
St Aloysius did not know St Ignatius personally. He was received as a novice of the Society 25 years after Ignatius death. St Philip Neri, however, did know Ignatius and there was clearly a close friendship and understanding between them. St Philip was certainly active in Rome when St Aloysius was there. If they had met, I wonder what Philip would have seen in the young Gonzaga? Would he have recognized something of his friend Ignatius in the young Jesuit novice and scholastic? Indeed, what would St Philip have recognized of himself?
Surely, he would have immediately seen the strong, focused and determined will. He would certainly have known something of Aloysius' remarkable history and passion for religious life that made him defy his formidable family and refuse the life of worldly power and influence they had marked out for him. I think Philip would also have seen the absolute love of Christ, the passion for him and the desire to make him known, which clearly inspired Aloysius — or Luigi — and was much more than a youthful enthusiasm or an idealistic adolescent rebellion. Aloysius carried a love that was intense, immense, and dynamic; it went out to all, especially those in need. St Philip would have recognized a nature touched and made even more alive by grace. In this, too, he would surely have recognized the same mystery at work in his life as well.
Mission and Desire: The Exercises of St Ignatius
We know that not only does grace build on nature; it fulfills it. Yet it also uses the circumstances of our lives, our histories and our relationships to do so. Although already inspired by the vision of the Society upon entering as a novice, Aloysius would have encountered one of the great instruments of God’s grace, the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. In this great school of the human heart and will he would have learnt the ways of discerning the Spirit’s work in his own life and the path to deeper service and companionship of the Christ with whom he was already in love. The Exercises are a good way of understanding the heart of this young saint.
Coming from the Gonzaga family Aloysius was born for greatness. From an early age he knew well ‘the world’ that the First Letter of John speaks about. It is a world that touches us all, and it has many ways of tempting us for it offers so much: Can we not use all our gifts, our wealth or power both for the world and for God? How much more good could we do if we used the opportunities and resources our careers give us to do real and genuine good, to serve the Church in difficult times? What virtue can there be in abandoning the legitimate expectations and needs of family and its responsibilities for the anonymity of a religious life of poverty, chastity and obedience? Especially to abandon it for a new and controversial order, many of whom were Spaniards and Jewish converts, as yet untested by history and tradition.
To borrow the language of St Ignatius in the Exercises, ‘the enemy of our human nature’ or ‘the bad spirit’ has many ways both subtle as well as gross, to distort and weaken Christ’s claim upon our lives. Like us all, I do not doubt that Aloysius had to wrestle with these questions, no less powerful and persuasive because they came from those who loved him and whose own family fortunes depended upon him. Yet something else held him. He was captivated by a greater dream.
Early in his young life Aloysius somehow came to hear of the ‘missions’ that the Society was undertaking in the new worlds that were opening up as a result of trade and exploration. Whatever the possibilities presented to him by family, prestige, and the gifts of nature, Aloysius saw in these missions the greatest horizon of all: companionship with Christ in service of the Kingdom — that call to the help of souls — ayudar las almas — that echoes through the Exercises. It is the call of the gospel: never an abstract proposition but always a meeting with the person of Christ.
Now ‘missions’ is a word almost invented by the Society and it is central to the way in which it thinks about itself. The whole of its life and work is ordered around the experience of being ‘sent’. That is one of the principal reasons why the Society, from the beginning, placed itself under the Pope: that it may be better sent into ‘the vineyard of the Lord’. But the desire to be sent, to be on mission, is more than just a principle of obedience and discernment. It is a practical mysticism for it is rooted in Christ: To be sent, to live in being sent, is at the heart of Christ’s own life. No one can send himself or herself. Christ always understands himself only in terms of being sent by the Father. Everything he has, he receives from the Father. For this reason we cannot detect in Christ any distinction between his person and his mission: he is what he does.
If we really desire to get to know Christ, we have to enter into this mystery of his own life. In doing so we will encounter the same dynamic in him that is in the Divine life: the whole of God’s Triune life is an outward movement of love for us. Just as we cannot know or even imagine the sun without its light so we cannot know of imagine God without this outpouring of love. This is what we encounter in the life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and it is made visible and knowable for us in the life of Jesus. This is why in John’s gospel Christ can say, ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ In Christ’s own sense of being sent, of being on mission, we touch the heart of his life and his person; through his heart we pass into the infinite and unfathomable depths of the love between Christ and the Father expressed in the freedom with which Christ desires only to do the Father’s will. It is a desire which he makes central to all those who know him and bear his name as it echoes in the prayer which he teaches us and his Church, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. A desire realized not only in the moments of his healing and teaching, but also in the dark silence of Gethsemane, ‘thy will be done’. And so it is with us. There is no closer union with Christ than this desire, this prayer. It is the triumph of God’s sovereignty in us and in our lives. There is no greater witness to this than Mary, the mother of the Lord.
To the world this desire to do God’s will looks like a subjection that denies our autonomy, a form of oppression that diminishes our humanity. Yet we know that it is exactly the reverse. We see none of this in Christ. On the contrary there is no greater freedom that Christ’s freedom, and no greater or more vital humanity than his. In so far as we are willing to enter into this mystery of surrender, we too discover that, far from oppression, it brings liberation. Letting our lives be lived for Christ can never impoverish or diminish our humanity, rather, it brings a new life. We cannot know this in advance because we cannot know love until we actually love. Only then do we come to know that in love’s surrender do we discover the gift of freedom.
The Exercises of St Ignatius are nothing if they are not a way into this mystery of salvific love and freedom at the centre of Christ’s life, taking us into the source of his mission. The Exercises start where we are, with the desires that we have and they deepen and purify them. The constant question of the Exercises is ‘...id quod volo?’ What do you want or desire? In every encounter with Christ we invariably find him asking this question of us. Of course, his great desire is for us; that we would come to desire him and the life that only he can offer. And so his question is here before us: in the gospel we have heard, in the life of St Aloysius and St Philip. It is surely a question that they both recognized and each day renewed with the answer of their lives.
‘Id quod volo?’ is a question for us all. We don’t have to invent some desire that we feel we should have; we just start with the desires that we really do have. It doesn’t matter how trivial or unworthy we may feel them to be. All that matters is that we recognize them and open them to God that through the action of his Spirit he may show us what is really worth desiring, worth loving, worth giving our lives to.
And here we enter into a profound and beautiful movement that shapes our whole lives... Of course, we know intellectually that it is God himself who is alone worth our desiring. Indeed, this is the longing that measures the ebb and flow of our existence. But if our intellect can see this, our heart must come to want it and our wills to embrace it. Often, this becomes the deep, patient, real work that God has to accomplish in each of us. Yet here, too, we come to realise another beautiful and generous mystery: in desiring God we already begin to possess him. And as he is Love himself, in loving him, no matter how feebly, we already participate in his life.
Slowly we begin to understand that God’s Love, and the God who is Love, is vast, dynamic, always reaching out and searching beyond all our limits. For the love of Christ expands our heart; it deepens our desire for the good of the other and for the whole of creation. It takes us out of the tomb self, breaths new life into us and we come to see with wholly new eyes the world in which we live: its pain and suffering, its longing and its hope, its beauty and despair. We see it all again but this time we see it in him, in the Love with which he enfolds all things, especially the lost and the broken, the weary and the lonely. This is the dream, the desire we see moving in Aloysius as it moved in Ignatius and Philip Neri.
Following the Incarnate Lord into the world
If St Aloysius encountered the question, id quod volo, he would also certainly have prayed one of the great contemplations on the Incarnation. In many ways, it is at the core of every Jesuit life. The contemplation stands at the beginning of the second week of the Exercises. We are invited to see our world as the Triune God sees it: Before us is all its beauty and variety but as we come to focus more closely we also see its suffering, the waste of human life and resources, the cursing and blaspheming; all the ways in which we are disfigured and disfiguring. We are asked to see the reality of sin and its consequences for humanity as God sees and understands it. Only in this perspective can we begin to understand what it means: that the humanity and the world that God has given us are in jeopardy. We are in need of salvation; we are on the way to destruction and the deep fissure of alienation that our sin has created cannot be healed by anything we can do or create for ourselves. What is the Divine response? What is the Divine desire? What is God’s answer to the question, ‘id quod volo?’ To our astonishment it is not one of rejection or condemnation. Instead it is an infinite desire to come to us, to heal us and bring us back to life. To do this we discover a God who is prepared to risk everything for us, to become one of us, with a cost that we can never measure. We see a God whose love draws him into the darkest part of our lives and our hearts where death sits enthroned. The more we enter into this contemplation, the more we are taken out of our sense that we know this story. We have to come to see that no matter how many times we hear it or reflect upon it, it can never be familiar. It is the reality of God’s self-gift in Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that forces us to leave behind all the familiar concepts and ways of knowing. All we can do is to allow the grace of incomprehension and disorienting wonder overtake us. Then we can begin to see that this story is a new genre — God Himself is his own genre: his incarnation is no myth; no fiction. It is flesh and blood, in time and space, in a country, a family, and a people with its tradition, history and its faith. No god that we could imagine or invent could do this. The grace of this contemplation is not only the grace of incomprehension and wonder, it is the grace of humility — another way of knowing not by mastery but by receiving. We need to discover again and again a humility and an innocence that allows us begin to see afresh the strange impossible beauty of Jesus: God who has made himself one with us and one of us.
In him we discover a Love that is not afraid to pour itself out, to be humiliated and mocked, and to endure even our Nietzschean contempt. It is the Love that is never abstract but always finds itself in the practical deeds of service, especially of the poor and outcast. It understands and embraces our frailty. The world rejects this; it holds before us the image of a perfection by which we can all be judged, humiliated. In pursuing the endless and impossible task of seeking to become the image in order to make ourselves objects that are valuable and loveable, we fail to see that the image is not our freedom but our slavery. Only a love that can embrace us in our repulsiveness and disfigurement is true love because it is not afraid our truth. This is the dangerous love of God that unsettles the world, its images and its idols, because it is the Truth that sets us free — a truth about God in whom we alone we can become truly who we are.
Before the love of this impossible and incarnate Christ and his truth, it is not surprising that the world will feel threatened and its power challenged. When it cannot produce indifference it will seek rejection. There is this strange illusion that takes hold of secular culture and its public intellectuals. It believes that ‘God’ is no more than an idea or the product of some sort of language game and religion a peculiar social construction to express our symbol nature. It sees that in the abolition of ‘God’ lies our liberation and the birth of a mature humanity. They do us good service because they do indeed remind us of the false gods that we can create and even the empty illusions of atheism when it creates its own übermensch as some sad product to fill the gap which it creates. Yet, how could they know an incarnate God except as a comforting fantasy unless they have the humility to be touched by a crucified and resurrected Christ? The truth is that the secular imagination is limited and impoverished. Its rejection of God, which it supplants with a sterile and limited humanism, is an attempt to hide the horror of human weakness which it cannot face; its atheism is simply a hopeless nihilism it mistakes for realism.
If God is God, God cannot cease to be nor can God be conditioned by our belief. The fact that Christ is incarnate in history and cannot be erased from it means that even our rejections and denials cannot change God’s faithful and persevering love for us. His love is abides with us and dwells in our history. So much is this Christ now rooted in our reality, that he is willing to dwell on the margins waiting for us to give him a home.
This is the love we see in Christ and it is the love that conquered the heart of Aloysius as it had the heart of St Philip. For both were caught up in the passionate love of God that risks everything, rejection and even destruction for us. We can see this God alive in St Aloysius and it is the same God that Pope Francis has so beautifully brought before us in our day. It was this love that took Aloysius into the streets of Rome to tend the victims of the plague. It was through this love in service that he came to embrace his own death. I think that this is the reality at the heart of St Aloysius that St Philip, that other great apostle of Rome, would have seen in the young Jesuit scholastic. He would have recognized, not a sad or tragic end of a gifted and idealistic young noble man but a life that carried a glory that will not fade.
Aloysius knew and lived the answer to the question that is put to Jesus in the gospel today: He understood that the great commandment is Love, and to love God is never to cease loving those whom God loves. This is the love that unites all humanity for there is no one who is not our neighbour, especially when they are in need — caritas Christi urget nos.
And so for us today maybe we can reflect:
- within our own lives and relationships, our places of work and neighbourhoods perhaps we can take the risk of loving. In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict speaks about ‘the heart that has eyes’. If we let God dwell in us, then indeed our heart will have new eyes; we will see differently and be moved, even in a small way, to act. Our heart will become free.
- And maybe St Aloysius shows how not to let our hearts grow small. If we keep this incarnate Christ at our centre then our hearts will always be open, never closed.
- Today, St Aloysius with St Philip and St Ignatius show us that whatever our age or temperament, there is always the excitement, the joy, the risk and adventure of being a Christian, of being a Catholic. What life could be better?